For week 3 of Deal Me In 2015, I drew the three of clubs, which I had assigned to Annie Proulx’s story “Rough Deeds.” An explanation of the Deal Me In Challenge may be found here. The complete list of stories I will be reading is here. For links to other participants’ story rosters, see the week 1 post here.
This story is only my second encounter with Annie Proulx. Last year, I read her odd story, “The Half-Skinned Steer,” which didn’t immediately grab me, but lingered in my subconscious for several days after. “Rough Deeds” is a more conventional story – one of revenge and one that also provides a tantalizing glimpse at what the unspoiled landscape of North America must’ve been like before the Europeans arrived and began their… coloniz… er, exploitation. The protagonist of this story is a Monsieur Duquet, who at the story’s beginning is living in the province of “Kebeck” (Quebec)
***some minor spoilers follow***
Duquet had sprung from horrid beginnings that were beyond humble. As Proulx relates, he had “escaped a cramped childhood spent pulling rabbit fur from half-rotten skins, pinching out guard hairs, plucking the soft fur for quilt stuffing. As a boy, he had coughed incessantly, bringing up phlegm clotted with rabbit hair. The fine hairs had settled on every surface, matted on his family’s heads and shoulders. Finally, in this clinging miasma of stinking hair and dust, his mother, choking blood, had lain on the floor, as his father’s black legs scissored away into the night, and Duquet began his struggle to get away from France, to become another person.”
Fueled by ambition to “erase” that history, Duquet becomes a new world entrepreneur, primarily in the business of supplying timber for great, voracious shipyards across the Atlantic. He is particularly adept at snapping up tracts of virgin forest in Maine when they become available for purchase. As with many nouveau riche, he becomes paranoid about losing his possessions and when, inspecting some land he purchased near the Penobscott River, he comes upon poachers stealing HIS timber. He and his right hand man react violently, driving off the poachers save one, an injured teenaged boy.
The events of the next couple days, where Duquet’s obsession with learning the identity of his competitors lead to a gruesome interrogation of the boy, set the course for the rest of the story and Duquet’s life. The only surviving “witness” to Duquet’s deeds is a grey owl, which perhaps haunts him thereafter. During their encounter, it becomes clear that Duquet has unresolved “issues” and they are brought to the surface when the boy cries for help:
“Inside Duquet, something like a tightly closed pinecone, licked by fire, opened abruptly, and he exploded with insensate and uncontrollable fury, a lifetime’s pent-up rage. ‘J’en ai rien à foutre. No one helped me!’ he shrieked. ’I did everything myself! I endured! I contended with powerful men. I suffered in the wilderness. I accepted the risk that I might die! No one helped me!’”
What did I enjoy about this story? I absolutely loved the detailed description of what the pristine forest must’ve been like in the northeastern U.S. Sadly, for the most part, we can today only imagine, but Proulx does quite an admirable job of this. (There are so few tracts of “old growth” forest left east of the Mississippi River, but, on a personal note, there’s a small one in Indiana – the Donaldson Woods in Spring Mill State Park, which I’ve visited several times. Beautiful.)
The story also made me think about how laws and “civilized behavior” are often suspended on the frontier or in the wilderness. Perhaps the early colonists of North America often had little choice but to perform “rough deeds”…
(below: The Donaldson Woods)
Oh, and it turns out, too, that Proulx is a supporter of Deal Me In. Okay, I’m only joking, but with dialogue like the following I suspect she would be if she knew about it: “He hesitated, as though he wished not to speak his news. When he did speak, he threw his words down like playing cards.” 🙂
This story may be read online (at least for now) at http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2013/06/10/rough-deeds
A short interview with Proulx about this story – and the novel it borrows its main character from – may be found at http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/this-week-in-fiction-annie-proulx
This story also made the 2014 edition of BASS (Best American Short Stories) – I don’t own that volume, though. Yet.
Have you read any Annie Proulx? She also famous for being the author of “Brokeback Mountain.”
(below an ‘antique’ postcard of the Penobscot River from Bowdoin.org)